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Justice slow to come for kin of woman slain in 2004

Home invasion case suffered 3 mistrials

The family of Betsy Tripp is preparing for a fourth trial after hung juries and an ill judge resulted in three mistrials. The family of Betsy Tripp is preparing for a fourth trial after hung juries and an ill judge resulted in three mistrials.
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / April 9, 2009
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One cold February night, two men burst into Betsy Tripp's apartment in Dorchester, hogtied her and her boyfriend with a telephone cord, and stole her bank card. Then they slashed Tripp's throat and shot her boyfriend in the face, leaving him blind in one eye.

Tripp, a 49-year-old store manager, was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The men accused of the killing were soon arrested. But five years later, justice continues to elude Tripp's family. The case has gone before a jury three times since 2008, each time ending in a mistrial, twice because of hung juries and once because the judge fell ill. Last year, during the first trial, a single juror voted against conviction.

Last week, the 12 jurors chosen for the third trial told Suffolk Superior Judge Patrick Brady that they were hopelessly deadlocked. Two jurors refused to convict.

Now, Tripp's family is preparing for their fourth journey to a Suffolk County courtroom, hoping that the next jury will give them the resolution they seek.

"We never imagined that it would come to this. That five years later we would still have the prospect of having to endure another trial," said Christopher Gorton, Tripp's brother-in-law. "I sometimes sense from people that they wonder why we're continuing with this. Why we put ourselves through this. . . . We're simply doing this because it's the last thing we can do for her."

The defendants in the case, Quincy Butler, 35, and William Wood, 34, have been behind bars for the last five years, waiting for judgment from a jury of their peers.

"I can't imagine what it's like to sit through jury trials, seeing and witnessing and hearing what you know, if you're truly innocent, . . . are lies," said Larry Tipton, Butler's lawyer.

The case underscores what can be the frustrating pace of justice and also highlights the unpredictability of Suffolk County juries, which are typically more racially, economically, and socially diverse than juries in other counties and, according to former prosecutors, less likely to trust police testimony.

"You never know what you're going to get," said Robert M. Griffin, a former Suffolk prosecutor who is now a defense attorney. "In Suffolk, you're going to get a much more broad-based population . . . As a prosecutor it taught me a lesson, you can't prepare your case well enough."

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley said the county's jury pool is not only likely to be more skeptical of law enforcement, but also has many young college students less equipped to judge the credibility of a witness than older jurors.

"It's not the diversity of the jury that's an issue at all; that's a good thing," Conley said. "I think it's the age of the jury pool and the lack of life experiences - you see a lot more people carrying backpacks in the courtroom than gray-haired people."

He noted that the county's murder conviction rate last year was 82 percent, lower than many of the suburban counties around the state, but higher than the average conviction rate of the country's 75 largest counties.

Conley, who said it is extremely rare for a case to go before a jury four times, said his office is pushing for a new trial in May.

"We'll try this case four times or 10 times if that's what it takes," Conley said. "We're going to present this evidence to a jury that will reach a unanimous verdict one way or another."

Tripp's relatives said they will return to the courtroom, though it will mean listening again to the gruesome details of Tripp's death.

"The only way I can honor her and stand with her is to go to court and listen to how she died," said Tripp's niece, Jennifer Wilson, who used vacation time to be at two of the trials.

Tripp's sister, Cynthia Gorton, 65, has had to testify three times, while Butler and Wood watched.

"It's extremely painful to watch my mother testify," Wilson said. "It's a nightmare. This is a nightmare."

Prosecutors say that on the night of Feb. 12, 2004, Butler and Wood pointed a gun at Tripp's boyfriend, Morris Thompson, 47, who was an acquaintance of one of them, and forced him to drive them to the apartment he shared with Tripp. After Wood used Tripp's ATM card to withdraw $40, prosecutors said he attacked Tripp. Then, they said, Butler shot Thompson, who pretended to be dead.

Both suspects have been held without bail since they were arrested. Wood's lawyer, Michael Bourbeau, could not be reached for comment.

Tipton said the case has been frustrating for him because he has not been allowed to tell jurors that Thompson was a drug addict who scared Tripp so much she was thinking of leaving him. Tripp's family declined to comment on Tipton's remarks.

Tipton said there was no forensic evidence tying either suspect to the knife used to kill Tripp.

Prosecutors, in turn, were not able to tell jurors of Butler's prior conviction for a murder he committed as a juvenile.

A juror in the most recent trial, John D. Riccio of Revere, said the two holdouts could not get past "inconsistencies" in testimony by Thompson and another key witness.

Riccio said after the trial he approached Christopher Gorton outside the courtroom.

"I told him that I was very sorry, that I tried every intellectual angle that I could think of to appeal to the dissenting opinion," said Riccio, a 56-year-old electrician from Revere. "We both really struggled not to cry."

Wilson said while the closeness of the votes is frustrating, it also gives her reason to hope.

"I admire the jurors so much, the jurors who wanted to convict the defendants," she said. "And the fact that we have 21 jurors who so passionately believed that these were the two guys who killed my aunt just touches me so much."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.

The family of Betsy Tripp is preparing for a fourth trial after hung juries and an ill judge resulted in three mistrials.

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